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Innovation and leadership in Canada's mid-sized cities

by Jo Flatt
in Innovation, Leadership, Magazine
January, 2018

When we talk about city-building, it tends to be the large, global cities, like Toronto, New York, Paris, and Tokyo that dominate the conversation. These discussions seldom consider the full range of city-types that exist, or the diversity of urban experiences that smaller and mid-sized cities can provide. This is particularly true in the Canadian context; but, it is also evident across the western world, where we see disproportionate levels of investments in infrastructure, immigration, and development between the small and the big. Mid-sized cities (MSCs), those with populations between 50,000 to 500,000, total 88 cities across Canada, representing 36.7 percent of the country’s population. Yet, these cities suffer from a scarcity of planning models suited to their particular circumstances, because they are not recognized as having a distinct status or a focused area of study.1 While it may seem obvious, cities of different sizes have different needs – and it is critical that we as city-builders invest in the range of tools, policies, programs, and services that can help all cities thrive.

Evergreen’s Mid-Sized Cities Program is an interdisciplinary multi-year program to support the social, economic, and environmental vibrancy of Canadian mid-sized cities. It aims to fill an important gap for municipalities of a medium size by putting forward needed research, piloting initiatives with local impact, and building the capacity of decision makers and city builders across Canada. Over the coming year, leading researchers and practitioners will address some of the key issues and opportunities facing Canada’s mid-sized cities in a monthly column describing best practices, research findings, and case studies that are relevant for these communities.2

Canada’s Mid-Sized Cities are at a Turning Point

In the last few decades, Canada’s mid-sized cities have experienced significant and often unexpected changes. International trends of globalization and technology have pushed these cities out of historically strong sectors, such as resource extraction and manufacturing, and toward service-based industries. In the race to transition, MSCs often fall short in supplying the talent and infrastructure needed to compete in attracting young families, retaining early career professionals, and meeting the needs of aging populations. At the same time, the predominant planning frameworks found in these communities have also lost their currency. Most MSCs were designed under planning paradigms that promoted suburbanization dynamics. Sprawl continues to consume vital farmland, promote dispersion, reduce local populations, and drain fiscal resources.

On the flip side, mid-sized cities have a paramount opportunity to reinvent their futures to ensure social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity. Evidence suggests that they are better positioned to be innovation and sustainability leaders than their larger counterparts, because of their nimbleness and less built-out urban infrastructure. Many are also demonstrating significant signs of change, with renewed political leadership, rising voter turnouts, higher levels of civic engagement, and younger political faces who are revitalizing politics and opening new windows of opportunity to do things differently. But, of course, not all mid-sized cities are made the same. Across the country, there is a significant variation in growth rates, largely resulting from the proximity to major metro areas. Supporting the uniqueness and variability of these cities requires new approaches that are place based and responsive to the assets of each city. If used effectively, these assets can be leveraged to mobilize the economy and improve the social wellbeing of residents. Assets can be tangible or intangible, and include historic downtowns, anchor institutions, labour force expertise, balanced economies, social connectivity, housing affordability, unique landscapes, and outdoor recreation, among many others. These assets should be considered part of the main building blocks for defining strategic place-based solutions to enhancing each city’s quality of place. Success in this area requires planning and policy approaches that are informed by collective and long-term efforts, and models of city building that are specific to the unique contexts of mid-sized cities.3

Mid-Sized Cities Program

Building on this perspective, the Mid-Sized Cities Program takes an asset-based and customized approach to how it works with its partner cities. The program started in the fall of 2014 in Ontario with an initial focus on two areas of opportunity: on-the-ground pilot projects in mid-sized cities; and creating the Mid-Sized Cities Research Collaborative.

The pilot projects were a critical first step of the program. Work started in Hamilton, where it was quickly learned that this community is organized, passionate, and powerful, especially in the West Harbour neighbourhood, an area undergoing significant change and development. Following extensive public consultation, a commercial storefront was transformed into a shared community space. The 294 James Street North Community Hub has become a central place for residents to connect with each other, learn about the developments happening in the neighbourhood, and for the city to communicate any anticipated changes and gather feedback. In just two years, over 25,000 people have come through its doors. Used by community organizations, residents and the city, 294 James Street North has become a cornerstone of the neighbourhood.

Building on this success, three more pilots ran in Peterborough, Greater Sudbury, and London. Each project involved the creation of a local steering committee or lead partner, stakeholder consultation, and a short-timeline of only eight months to implement the pilot.

In Peterborough, where green business, sustainable education, and natural assets are at the root of the city’s identity, the focus of the pilot became positioning the city as a green economy and community leader. The MSC program in partnership with the city, Chamber of Commerce, Peterborough and Kawartha’s Economic Development, and the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough, created the Peterborough Green Economy Action Lab to build alignment among leaders across sectors and identify a few quick wins. In Greater Sudbury, the steering committee included senior leaders from the Chamber of Commerce, Sudbury Community Foundation, and City of Sudbury planning and economic development departments. In partnership with the mayor’s office (and for the first time), 30 of the city’s leading anchor institutions and large public or non-profit institutions were connected to identify practices and strategies to support local economic and social vibrancy. In London, some momentum generated by the London Plan, the city’s Official Plan, which engaged upward of 300,000 people in its development. Building on this great work, the MSC program collaborated with the City of London and the Urban League of London to support community-led implementation of the plan through the 100in1Day platform. 100in1Day is a city-building network that culminates in a one-day festival where residents, businesses, and organizations lead pop-up events and activities to implement the changes they want to see in their neighbourhoods. The event was a huge success, engaging participants from communities, organizations, and businesses across the city.

In September 2016, the MSC Research Collaborative was launched following feedback from numerous city leaders indicating a gap in available resources and literature for mid-sized cities. Since its inception, the initiative has grown to over 25 researchers, representing more than 15 universities and colleges across North America. The Collaborative set out to customize academic research for a practitioner audience – civic, public, and private sector leaders working on the front lines of policy-making, community engagement, and development in mid-sized cities across Ontario. It released its first research series in May 2017 and will be releasing a follow-up series in May 2018. This will be followed by a researcher and Practitioner Roundtable to support cross-pollination and learning among academics and practice leaders. And, the Collaborative is open to new partners that are interested in contributing to this field of work.

Over the coming months, these articles in Municipal World will showcase some of the work that is underway, including the state of data and technology in mid-sized cities, site visits, and workshops in MSCs, and facilitating city-to-city learning opportunities for senior staff working on urban development issues. MW

1 2011 Census Data – includes Hamilton, Quebec City, and Brampton (even though they are above 500,000). Calculated by Austin Zwick, member of the Mid-Sized Cities Research Collaborative.

2  Evergreen, the lead of the program, is a national non-profit organization with a mandate to create flourishing cities across Canada, with offices in Toronto, Vancouver and Hamilton.

3  This section is based on two recent reports published by Evergreen and co-authored by Jo Flatt and Luisa Sotomayor. See,

Jo Flatt is Senior Manager, Policy & Partnerships at Evergreen. She leads the organization’s Mid-Sized Cities Program, an interdisciplinary initiative to help mid-size cities thrive. Jo has led numerous consultation efforts including the City of London’s Urban Agriculture Strategy. She is also an instructor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance.

as published in Municipal World, January 2018

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